The Cactus League

Emily Nemens & David Duchovny

In Conversation

Jason Goodyear is the star outfielder for the Los Angeles Lions, stationed with the rest of his team in the punishingly hot Arizona desert for their annual spring training. Handsome, famous, and talented, Goodyear is nonetheless coming apart at the seams. And the coaches, writers, wives, girlfriends, petty criminals, and diehard fans following his every move are eager to find out why—as they hide secrets of their own. The Cactus League captures a strange desert world that is both exciting and unforgiving, where the most crucial games are the ones played off the field.

Emily Nemens joined David Duchovny, author most recently of Miss Subways, to discuss her writing process, why baseball inspires writers, and how being an editor helped her as a writer.

David Duchovny: Congratulations, The Cactus League is a beautiful novel. I really enjoyed reading it. I was just wondering if you ever read it out loud while you were writing it.

Emily Nemens: Yeah, I tend to read out loud in the middle of the process. A first draft is very much just on the page.

Duchovny: You read the whole book out loud?

Nemens: No, just sections, to solve on a paragraph level. I think the editor in me is doing a lot of problem-solving, and there’s definitely a phonic moment where I want to hear how the sentences sound, as units and together.

Duchovny: And are you judging length and rhythm and the pace and music of it?

Nemens: I am doing all of that, yes. Also, I have an art history degree, so I think I have a descriptive impulse that I love and admire, but that leads me to be somewhat long-winded.

Duchovny: You’re saying an art history degree has a utility.

Nemens: Yes, just a bit. Another perk of the degree: I developed a good copyeditor’s eye the year I was editing captions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some of the captions have very long provenances; a lot of semi-colons and italics and more semi-colons and parentheses. That impulse toward description is a thing I love, but a thing that I really had to pare back through editing. I cut about 25,000 words from The Cactus League, line by line.

Duchovny: Really?

Nemens: Yeah. It was a little nasty. I mean, it was fun, and I could feel that rhythm and musicality, and feel the story and its heart clicking together in a thrilling way. That heart was there from the beginning, but it needed some elbow room.

Duchovny: Did you feel that sometimes description got in the way of a connection with the reader that you were trying to forge emotionally?

Nemens: Yes. There are nine innings here, nine chapters. So, I was really interested in structure, but it wasn’t always that way. I was originally just interested in spring training, and writing about an ensemble of people who cared about each other in Arizona. Once I understood the hierarchy of how things might fit together, there was a lot of redundancy and unnecessary detail—things that felt absolutely necessary until working with Emily Bell, my editor at FSG. Then I realized I could do a lot more with a little less. I’m an editor by day, so I love editors and edits. But I appreciate being edited even moreso, having been on both sides of the desk.

Duchovny: How was it on the writer’s side?

Nemens: It was good. Emily was very generous, but also rigorous. I could do a lot with her top-level notes, because I’m in the business of making writing better and looking at something that has a lot of promise and getting into it on a line level. So she gave me marching orders, and I marched.

Duchovny: To use baseball analogies, how would you describe an editor in the baseball hierarchy?

Nemens: Probably in the clubhouse . . .

Duchovny: Crusty old clubhouse guy?

Nemens: Yeah, spitting something, one cleat up on the top step.

Duchovny: I am always interested in the first causes of creative projects. The initial stew of first ideas, images, words. And then how, through the process of writing, that changes and the original idea becomes something completely different—the point at which characters or events start to almost dictate themselves to you as a writer. Could you share if there was a first image or eureka moment where you were like, “I’m going to write this Cactus League book,” and then was there a moment at which the characters started to talk to you and take over?

Nemens: I think maybe where it started was as soon as I moved to Louisiana in 2011, I wrote a seventy-eight-word short story about Yankee Stadium. It was for Esquire magazine’s 78th anniversary issue. It involved this nostalgic look at Yankee Stadium—in five sentences, I built a history of this guy’s life as it intersected with the stadium. After that I thought, “Can I think of baseball and baseball literature and storytelling around a stadium in a really ambitious and weird way?” I liked the conceit of writing about the practices and what surrounds the main event, rather than the game itself. We’ve read plenty about the bottom of the ninth, that stuff.

I liked the conceit of writing about the practices and what surrounds the main event, rather than the game itself.

Duchovny: It’s interesting how sometimes big creative ideas will come out of homework assignments like that. Sometimes you come up with an answer that surprises you, and you turn it into a novel nine years later. That’s quite a story.

Nemens: The other thing that informed my beginning was living in Louisiana. LSU football was in full effect. That year LSU went to the national championship, but it’s always something of a carnival and a madcap scene on Saturdays through the fall. Something similar to that swirl of humanity happens at spring training—with fewer kegs and Solo cups and more real athleticism and more lives impacted. Those games felt analogous and interesting to think about in regards to American sports culture.

So, those were the big conceptual things that were happening for me, and then the characters did take over. Tami was one of the first people that I started thinking about. There is another character who gets Tommy John surgery, and, at least when I was researching, I found it had an eighty-five percent success rate, which is great. But it’s not that great. Fifteen percent is still a lot of people who have totally blown out their elbow.

The character in my book is in his mid-twenties and he just feels like it’s the end of the world to be taken out of the rotation for two years. I’ve been sitting with this pitcher for seven years, trying to figure out his psychology and what it means to feel that way. Talk about a time warp. Living with these characters, they are definitely part of the family or close friends at this point.

Duchovny: That moves into an area that I wanted to ask you about, the obsessive quality of sports and art, and the behavior that gets applauded on the field, or the kind of behavior that gets you to the point of mastery on the field. Let’s talk about Jason Goodyear from your book. Practices, practices, practices, puts his 10,000 hours in swinging a bat, whatever it is—but that also creates a certain mentality off the field, which is a gambling addiction. I feel like you were addressing that dichotomy of art, baseball, art as sports, and the kind of myopic focus it takes to get great at something. And what happens when the game is over, what happens when your career is over and what happens when the lights are out.

Nemens: I was interested in that impossible duality that people have of sports figures. I mean, it’s not just sports figures, it’s a lot of public figures in terms of celebrities and politicians, people in the public realm. It’s this idea that the very personality traits that make you great at what you do could also be a real foil, and burn down not just your professional standing, but your whole life. That felt like a natural challenge and character match for Jason, but I think that that challenge of how to square the dichotomy is a larger issue we are facing in contemporary American culture. It is exacerbated by the media cycle and the way that athletes have been commodified. Goodyear’s agent keeps pushing for him to get more ad deals, and he’s modest in terms of what he is willing to do with his body in advertising campaigns, in a way that makes him sound completely square compared to the rest of the team and the athletes around him. I felt sorry for the guy.

The very personality traits that make you great at what you do could also be a real foil, and burn down not just your professional standing, but your whole life.

Duchovny: I did too, and I really liked your description of his marriage, that it was a folie a deux; it goes to gambling. I thought that was really interesting and very unique, and not something that I’ve seen before, where they gamble together.

Nemens: Yeah, believe it or not people have vices that they enjoy together. I was glad to give Liana as a bit of a backbone, in that she got out of it. She said “enough is enough,” and that’s really what set everything spinning.

Duchovny: Also this happens at the end of the book, so it’s a spoiler, but there’s this moment where this character Jason Goodyear—who is self-obsessed and obsessive and gambling and playing this game—is shocked out of his condition in a Flannery O’Connor-type moment. He makes a move and does something that jeopardizes his own health and career and life in order to save a person he doesn’t know. And his heart goes out to someone and I feel like that saves him. I wanted him to go on. I wanted to see Jason build on that. I like the way you ended it.

Nemens: So, there’s two things I’m taking from that. One, you want more of it; and two, being compared to Flannery O’Connor in any way is great. Thank you.

Duchovny: If there is an epiphany, I think it is in that moment with Jason. Interestingly, as an athlete, it’s not a verbal epiphany—it’s a physical epiphany. He finds his body doing something, and then he reads his heart out of that action. I found that to be a beautiful ending, and satisfying for that character.

Nemens: Thank you. It took me years to figure it out, so I’m glad it landed. I also really wanted, whether you call it an epiphany or salvation, to have the solution happen off the field. It felt important for it to be in the parking lot and not on the outfield track. I wanted it to end with a moment of humanity more than athleticism.

Duchovny: Mission accomplished. So, I guess the question is always going to be, why baseball? Why do you think baseball generates so much writing as opposed to the other sports—which generate writing, sure, but baseball is the king of literary sports. Why is that?

Nemens: When I figured out I wanted to write about baseball, I spent a year reading sports literature. I took an independent study. And there was a Shakespearean in the English department who also was the faculty athletic coordinator, the academic liaison for the sports teams. He and I would go sit up in the bleachers of basketball games to have our sessions. That’s all to say I read a ton of sports literature, and I don’t know that I have the definitive answer for why baseball. But I think there’s something of the pace—

Duchovny: The slow pace of baseball.

Nemens: Yes, slow.

Duchovny: Ruminative. Cows just chewing grass.

Nemens: It is solo and ensemble at the same time.

Duchovny: It’s all those numbers. And it’s very Kabbalistic; there’s going to be truth that you’re going to find in those reams of numbers that people throw around for baseball.

Nemens: For me, when I was writing and rewriting, structuring and restructuring this book, having certain rules in place in terms of the architecture was really helpful. I will call it a crutch, in fact, and then it stopped being a crutch.

Duchovny: Scaffolding.

Nemens: Scaffolding. And then it stopped being the scaffolding and it became this beautiful solution that felt preordained. But of course it wasn’t. It was scaffolding that became solidified.

Duchovny: Yours is the first book where I’ve seen earth time itself spoken of in terms of baseball time. You have the desert actually describing itself in terms of a baseball game.

Nemens: Yeah, I’ll explain. Everyone is sort of swarming around this stadium, which is a monumental piece of architecture built on the edge of Phoenix, right in front of a mountain range. (I made up a team but the stadium is real.) It is built the last plot of land before you get into undeveloped mountain range territory. There is also a casino there, so that pairing was helpful for Jason and his plight. But I was interested—for making such a big deal of these man-made monuments—to think about keeping that in perspective, and reminding readers of the history of the place and the geological monuments that have been there and that have changed. I wanted to contextualize the achievement and impossibility of the stadium and the season. The place, Arizona, is bigger than that, and the season, geologically speaking, is longer than theirs. So, that was the impulse.

Originally I did this deep dive into the geological history of Arizona and had this manic history told from this disembodied voice, and I didn’t know what to do with it—it felt like a different frequency than the rest of these close third-person chapters. Then I realized that I needed it to figure out a way into, and in between the chapters. So, a little slice and dice, and a meting out of that history, in scale with the progression of the season, made a lot of sense.

Duchovny: Did you envision this as a movie in your head as you were writing it, do you think cinematically when you’re writing? Since you’re also an illustrator, do you think in images, then fill them in with action and dialogue?

Nemens: Before I started editing literary quarterlies I was writing and editing for architecture, so thinking about visual spaces and being able to describe them and making architects more cogent was my day-in and day-out work. It was hard and interesting work and taught me to write about space, which has come in very handy as a literary editor—it turns out characters live in buildings, too! The other thing that has been really helpful about being an illustrator is that when I get stuck I have this other outlet, another means of expression. I imagine it’s not unlike going between acting and writing.

As for being cinematic, hopefully it will have another life in another format, but I was thinking about sentences when I wrote it. Having a visual vocabulary, I understood how people walk into a room, how people move around spaces. I enjoy that language, so I used it. Of course, we’ve all listened to enough baseball games such that you can describe someone running around the bases. That’s sort of a familiar choreography, but I wanted to write about other more surprising gestures that could happen on the field and/or among athletes, when they’re watching and when they’re not.

Duchovny: For me, when I’m writing, it’s like I’m in that country, and as soon as I leave that country my passport becomes really dicey. And for me to go back I second-guess myself—I feel like I’m in that country intellectually now, instead of spiritually and emotionally. Can you describe your writing process?

Nemens: For me, entering and exiting sort of solves itself, because of my day job. I would have a month where work was so busy and I couldn’t think about my own writing, or I’d be thinking about it all the time but I wouldn’t be actually writing much at all. And that’s crazy-making, but I’d try to carve out time at the end of that busy spell to have a very big writing meal, I guess you could say, and get a lot of writing done, and really act on the things I’ve been turning over while reading submissions and issue production and walking the dog and thinking about everything else. I solved a lot of problems of the book in this way, storing up the energy and then finally putting it to paper. So the number of hours at the desk were not as much, but the hours were very productive.

Audience member: David asked about what position the editor would play on a baseball team, but what position would the author play in your view?

Nemens: For me, first flush, I’d say pitcher or hitter. But maybe it is actually the catcher. I definitely felt like the catcher writing the scenes, understanding where exactly everyone is and how they are moving around, also telling the pitcher what to throw. Hopefully they do what they’re told and follow the signals.

I definitely felt like the catcher writing the scenes, understanding where exactly everyone is and how they are moving around, also telling the pitcher what to throw.

Audience member: At what moment did you realize that you wanted to be a writer? Was there a pivotal moment, was there a story, when was that for you?

Nemens: I have always been a bookworm and worked at writing in different ways. I think I always knew I wanted to have some sort of storytelling in my life, but I wasn’t sure what it would be. For a while I was drawing comics; I was writing poetry in college. And I think the other thing that happened, the thing that made it feel like a real possibility—rather than a little girl wanting to be a novelist, this abstract ideal—was engaging with oral history. I spent a lot of time on oral history as an undergrad and in my early twenties. And of course I use it now—it’s helpful in my day job with The Paris Review’s retrospective interviews…But I think understanding the power of a story that is entirely out of your hands and absolutely not of your head, listening to that and making a narrative out of it, was a big step for me. Dedicating energy to that endeavor, to telling other people’s stories, was exciting. Maybe that’s where it started.

Emily Nemens is the editor of The Paris Review. She was previously the coeditor of The Southern Review. Her work has been published in Esquire, n+1, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, and elsewhere.

David Duchovny is a television, stage, and screen actor, as well as a screenwriter and director. He lives in New York and Los Angeles. His most recent book is Miss Subways.